What’s an Antarctica cruise really like? We show you.
I’m going to be honest; if you need to ask the question “why go?,” Antarctica likely isn’t a trip for you. I say that because a journey to the White Continent is a huge investment of time and money. If you’re just looking for a spot to experience wintertime activities amongst snow-capped scenery, you could go to Alaska or Austria or even the Arctic Circle for far less. (I say wintertime, but know that you’d be visiting Antarctica during its summer.)
However, for the intrepid family, I can’t recommend Antarctica and our travel provider, Antarctica 21, enough. My 18-year-old son and I embarked on our Antarctica adventure over the Christmas holiday. And what a gift it was! The service on the ship was superb. The surroundings were unparalleled. And the wildlife viewing was only matched by another once-in-a-lifetime trip that we took to the Galápagos Islands.
Since returning, I’m constantly asked, “What was there to do in Antarctica?” Plenty. I’ve put together this day-by-day guide to give you a clear idea of what an Antarctica cruise entails. However, no two Antarctica cruises will be the same, even when they’re operated by the same cruise company. More so that any other vacation that you’ll ever take, the itinerary in Antarctica is fluid and heavily influenced by weather and sea conditions. While the following article is a good representation of a trip with Antarctica 21, know that your voyage won’t be exactly the same but still equally magical.
Before I dive into our first day on board Antarctica 21’s ship, I should note that my son and I already had been traveling for three days on four flights at this point in the trip. As you may expect, getting to the tip of South America takes some time. To get a better idea of the logistics involved, click here.
On this afternoon, we found ourselves at yet another airport - this one in Punta Arenas, Chile. Antarctica 21 is one of two operators in the world (the other is Quark) that flies its passengers from South America to Antarctica rather than sailing the often-turbulent waters of the Drake Passage. It’s one of the main reasons why this prone-to-seasickness mom booked with Antarctica 21. The thought of potentially spending two days on the way down and two days on the way back on the floor of my cabin bathroom was not at all appealing. Even so, weather is still the deciding factor in whether you’ll actually get to the continent. Once you arrive in Punta Arenas, you and your fellow passengers are on standby, waiting for a window of good weather to fly to Antarctica. The cruise line has a 4-day contingency plan; if it can’t get you to the continent in that amount of time, the trip is canceled and refunded. It’s one of the reasons why you’re required to have travel insurance that can cover the other expenses that you may incur in case of cancellation (flight changes, hotel stays, etc.).
KidTripster Tip: I did a tremendous amount of research into travel insurance companies before selecting World Nomads. I believe that it offers the best value for the money. Since then, KidTripster has become an affiliate partner of World Nomads. If you book a policy through this link, you’ll be supporting KidTripster at no additional cost to you. Thanks in advance for your support.
We were fortunate to get the all-clear on our first attempt. To reach Antarctica, we flew on one of DAP Airlines’ penguin planes. (Yes, the planes are painted like penguins!) The BAE 146-200 is specially-designed for landing on short runways. We were pleasantly surprised by DAP. We were half expecting a cargo plane, but DAP operates like a regular commercial airline. In fact, it was actually nicer with an onboard meal for the short 2-hour flight, plus complimentary chocolate candies as you boarded.
KidTripster Tip: With Antarctica 21, you’re strictly limited to a total of 44 pounds (20 kg) in luggage - that includes both your suitcase and carry-on items. For a packing list of what you should bring and what you should leave at home, click here. Know that if you have extra luggage (perhaps you’re extending your trip before or after the cruise), you can store it at the host hotel in Punta Arenas.
KidTripster Tip: For an extra fee, Antarctica 21 offers preferred seating on the flight to ensure a window seat (or aisle, if you prefer). Don’t waste your money. There are plenty of window seats. We were able to get window seats both to and from Antarctica without paying more.
The flight landed at Frei Station, a research base that’s operated by Chile on one side and Russia on the other. According to the Antarctica Treaty of 1959, no country can have a territorial claim in Antarctica; instead countries agree to cooperate peacefully for the purpose of scientific investigation. Before we set foot on Antarctica’s soil, we dipped our boots in a sanitizing liquid as a way of protecting the continent’s fragile ecosystem. This would become a regular practice each and every time that we disembarked the ship, as well. As we took in our first glimpse of Antarctica, I was surprised to find that the ground was not snow-covered, but it was cold with a strong wind blowing. We crossed the emergency runway in a single file line and then walked about a mile downhill to the beach where we boarded inflatable boats, called Zodiacs, which delivered us to the 239-foot Ocean Nova, our home for the next week.
We were greeted by the ship’s hotel manager, Sandra, and then escorted to our cabin by our steward, Winston. The cabin was fairly roomy with a large window and en suite bathroom. Take a look here. The room also had a black-out shade which we needed, as it was light 24/7 during our cruise.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re prone to seasickness, you may want to request a room toward the center of the ship on a lower deck.
Next stop: the Panorama Lounge for orientation. Here we met our expedition team. I was struck by how many of them had spent several seasons in Antarctica, including Jonathan who’d been coming to Antarctica since 1964, first as a glaciologist and now as a guide. In fact, Jonathan has a mountain range in Antarctica named after him! I also was struck by the wide range of nationalities on the team. Members were from Argentina, China, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, Russia, and the United Kingdom. Later, we’d learn that the captain was from Panama, most of the wait staff was from the Philippines, and most of the housekeeping staff was from Central America.
And the passengers, too, added to the international flavor. The 68 passengers on board represented 11 countries. There were 11 children under the age of 18; that was more than average due to four Chinese families from Beijing who were traveling together with a total of nine kids. All of the passengers were well-traveled. I’d estimate that at least half of them were visiting their seventh continent like us.
KidTripster Tip: If you want to travel with the maximum number of children on board so that your own children have peers, you’ll want to book a voyage over the Christmas holiday. However, know that you do pay a huge premium for sailing at that time of year. Click here for more information on just how much the cruise costs.
Because we arrived in the late afternoon, the captain’s welcome reception was postponed, and we headed right to dinner. All meals on the ship are open seating, allowing you to mingle with everyone by the end of the cruise. We’d been warned that the navigation across the Bransfield Strait that night could get a little choppy with 10-foot waves. The advice was to eat lightly if you’re prone to seasickness.
KidTripster Tip: I’ve had a fair amount of experience with seasickness, so let me offer some advice. First, it’s imperative to medicate before you feel ill. For this trip, I brought the prescription medication Meclizine. Others on the cruise used a medicated patch or over-the-counter Dramamine with success. You’ll want to take your medication at least an hour prior to a major navigation. Secondly, eat lightly and avoid alcohol. Thirdly, go to sleep as soon as possible. To help, I take a double dose of melatonin. It was a bit rocky that first night, but the rest of the voyage was smooth sailing as the ship hugged the Antarctica Peninsula. It was comparable to cruising the Inside Passage of Alaska.
My son got an early start this morning with a workout in the small gym. The views in the gym with its floor-to-ceiling windows almost tempted me to exercise… almost. It was worth being up early, though, as we were treated to a spectacular Orca sighting prior to breakfast - the only Orcas that we saw on the entire cruise. It was a pod of about a half dozen with one of the females playing on the ship’s bow for nearly 10 minutes. The crew slowed the ship down and made overhead announcements to give everyone an opportunity to see.
Antarctica 21 operates similarly to other expedition cruises that I have been on. Typically, you’re offered two excursions daily - one in the morning and one in the afternoon. These excursions can include beach walks, short hikes, penguin colony visits or Zodiac cruises to view wildlife.
On an Antarctica 21 cruise, there are two additional activities, both of which have an extra fee and should be reserved when you book your cruise, as spots will fill up: sea kayaking and snowshoeing. We signed up for both and wish we wouldn’t have. Let me explain why.
First, you don’t need to have a tremendous amount of experience to go sea kayaking. If you’ve been kayaking once or twice, you’ll be fine. What is different about kayaking in Antarctica is the amount of gear. All those passengers who sign up are issued a drysuit, kayak skirt (a covering that zips into the kayak), and booties. This gear takes up a lot of space in your cabin, so much space that we ended up pulling down the bunk above my bed to accommodate all our other cold weather clothing. Gearing up to kayak is a major pain. First, you have to put on your long underwear and double socks (a thin pair of socks plus a wool pair works best), then your warm “street clothes,” and finally your drysuit, which is rather awkward. Next, you wet and then wear the kayak shirt around your waist. Lastly, you pull on your waterproof booties, hat, gloves, and sunglasses or goggles.
KidTripster Tip: Try to wear a sweater or sweatshirt with a high collar to prevent the drysuit from rubbing on your neck. Don’t wear a hoodie, as it’ll be too bulky under the drysuit.
You waddle down to the deck to board a Zodiac with your guide. You then motor to the starting point where you transfer into another Zodiac and finally your double kayak. All the kayaks are two-person kayaks; if you don’t have a partner, you’ll be assigned one. Depending on the location and the weather, you’ll have about 1-1/2 to 2 hours on the water. Understandably, safety is the guide’s first priority. This means that you kayak as a group. My son, who’s a college rower, found this part to be extremely frustrating, as we paddled a lot faster than our companions. We kept finding ourselves out in front of the pack and would have to stop and wait for the other kayaks to catch up. You’re also not able to get as close to glaciers or icebergs as you are in the Zodiacs. The danger is that a glacier or iceberg could calve sending a large chunk into the sea, and in the case of icebergs, they sometimes will roll.
KidTripster Tip: “What about whales? Will whales flip my kayak?” I seriously had concerns about this. During our time on the water, we never got close to any whales, so it was a non-issue. However, I have seen videos on Instagram where whales in Antarctica swim next to a kayak, though I’ve never seen them breach underneath a kayak.
Perhaps the biggest downside to kayaking is the cost. For this cruise, it was an extra $895 per person. Yes, that’s a chunk of change. Just how many times you kayak has to do with weather conditions. On our cruise, we had the opportunity to kayak five times; however, we choose to only go three times. The reason is twofold: 1) We also had signed up for snowshoeing. Often these activities were offered at the same time, so we’d have to choose. This is the reason why you shouldn’t pay for both kayaking and snowshoeing; you won’t get your money’s worth out of either. 2) At the end of each kayak trip, you get about 20 minutes on land to rush around (wearing your kayak skirt), but if you’re into wildlife like me and want to take a hundred photos of penguins, you won’t have enough time.
I admit to being torn about recommending that you skip the kayaking, because we did enjoy our time on the water. Gliding through ice floes and icebergs with penguins jumping in the water around you is a pretty magical experience. But really, once or twice is enough; if you pay $895, you’re going to feel compelled to go each time and possibly miss out on other opportunities. If we had to do it all again, we would skip kayaking. (I’ll address snowshoeing coming up.)
KidTripster Tip: Even if someone who signed up for kayaking elects not to go, you - as someone who didn’t preregister - can’t slip into that spot. Mostly, it has to do with the logistics and gear; the expedition team can’t take the time to orientate new people every day. It simply isn’t practical.
So back to the cruise! We spent the morning kayaking along Trinity Island in Mikkelson Harbour while others visited the small colony of Gentoo penguins. In the afternoon, as my son and I kayaked along Cierva Cove, known for its stunning icebergs and abundance of leopard seals, other passengers explored by Zodiac. One group got quite close to a Humpback whale.
In the early evening, we were guests at the captain’s cocktail reception in the lounge followed by a lavish Christmas Eve dinner and Christmas caroling led by the staff. To top it all off, Humpback whales put on a show just off the bow of the ship, breaching repeatedly. It was a Christmas Eve to remember!
Photo courtesy: Joaquin Beccar Varela
This morning, we had our first, official continental landing at aptly-named Paradise Bay. The scenery here - including Petzval Glacier in Skontrop Cove and the many ice floes - was stunning. And because we were snowshoeing, we were able to reach a higher ridge for even more expansive views.
Compared to kayaking, snowshoeing is far less involved. Strap the snowshoes on to your boots, grab your poles, and go. If you can walk, you can snowshoe, though I would say that you should be reasonably fit as the snowshoeing is uphill. Again, a guide leads you in a group for your own safety. As snowshoers, we got to head out first, gliding over the freshly-fallen snow. Without snowshoes, walking is a workout, as you easily sink to your knees in the deep snow. The staff set up an area where passengers could slide down the hill. The younger Chinese passengers were thrilled.
As I mentioned earlier, there’s an extra fee for snowshoeing; on this particular cruise, it was $195 per person. Again, the number of hikes is determined by weather and location. On our cruise, snowshoeing was only offered two times; on the previous cruise, it was offered seven times. It just depends. Snowshoeing was my son’s favorite activity in Antarctica. It felt good to be actively working up a sweat (to the point that we both took off our winter coats), especially when you consider how much we were eating on board the ship! Despite the cost and the uncertain number of hikes, I’d highly recommend snowshoeing.
Once back on board, the staff held the much-anticipated Polar Plunge. Yes, passengers voluntarily jumped into the bone-chilling Southern Ocean just to have bragging rights, my son among them. Me? Not on your life! I was safely videotaping from an upper deck. See the video here. Nearly 40 passengers and crew members took the plunge. For those who were of legal drinking age, the dunk was followed by a shot of vodka.
In the afternoon, the ship sailed into the 7-mile-long Lemaire Channel that separates Booth Island from the Antarctic Peninsula. At its narrowest point, the channel is less than a half-mile wide with peaks towering 2000 feet overhead on either side. It’s nicknamed Kodak Canal, Fuji Funnel, and Agfa Alley as it’s considered one of the most photogenic channels along the peninsula.
KidTripster Tip: My son and I watched from the bridge as the first mate and crew navigated the channel. On the Ocean Nova, the bridge is typically open to passengers. Don’t miss the opportunity to visit!
Once we reached our farthest southern point of the cruise, all the passengers boarded Zodiacs for a rare ride back through the channel, as our ship followed from behind. We spotted plenty of wildlife including Crabeater seals (who actually don’t eat crabs). We passed another Gentoo penguin colony - this one perched high above on a rocky ledge. It was amazing to watch these penguins waddle down the steep mountainside, jump into the water to feed, and then waddle back up the so-called “penguin highway.” As we neared the end of the ride, the sunlight hit the ice formations and snow-capped peaks just perfectly. It was a vision.
A word about the weather. Everyone asks me, “How cold was it?” We were blessed with really good weather. Most days averaged between 32° to 36° F. With the wind, it sometimes dropped to around 24°F. The Antarctica Peninsula - where most cruise ships sail - is typically much warmer than the interior of the continent. But remember, Antarctica is an unpredictable place, so it's best to come prepared for frigid temperatures.
This morning, we explored Cuverville Island. My son and I decided to split up. He went on the snowshoeing hike and got a good workout; his watch measured an elevation gain of 750 feet. He was excited to take the shortcut down, sliding on his bottom through the snow. I spent some quality time watching 4,800 pairs of Gentoo penguins. I continued to be amazed at just how high penguins will nest, making their treks to the sea all the more difficult. I had hoped to see chicks, but they hadn’t yet hatched.
KidTripster Tip: As cute as penguins are, they also can be pretty filthy and stinky! To capture the best photos of clean, Instagram-worthy penguins, try hanging out at the water’s edge and shoot them as they get out of the water.
Set against the backdrop of a spectacular calving glacier in Neko Harbour, we spent the afternoon in our kayak, navigating between ice floes and icebergs - some topped with Gentoo penguins and Wendell seals - all in a light snow. As opposed to the brilliant sunshine of the previous day, it was overcast, eerie, and quiet; the only sounds that could be heard were our paddles striking the placid water. Our kayak group was much smaller today - just our guide Sophia from Argentina and two fellow passengers from New Zealand and Canada. The photos from this afternoon look like watercolor paintings. The rest of the passengers took a short hike on shore and admired the harbor view from above.
Again today, we were treated to breaching Humpbacks in the afternoon and evening. Our on-board naturalists explained that it was rare to see the whales breach so much while feeding. In all my travels and many cruises, I’ve never seen so many whales!
Speaking of feeding, let me say a bit about the dining on board the Ocean Nova. Of the three mainstream cruises and four expedition cruises that I’ve sailed on, Antarctica 21 provided the best dining experience and food, hands down. This feat is especially noteworthy when you consider the logistics involved in feeding a ship full of passengers and crew members in Antarctica. The Ocean Nova is only in port every two months during the Antarctica season to resupply, so the chef and kitchen staff need to be master planners. We did have fresh fruits and vegetables daily, brought in on the same flight that delivered us to the continent. The amount and quality of food and its presentation was top-notch. The chef imports bacon from Germany, lobster from the Caribbean, and more. And the desserts? Insanely good! In addition, Antarctica 21 - more than other small ships that I’ve been on - strikes the right balance between speed and service. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style, so you don’t have to wait through a lengthly table service. At dinner, salads and soups are available on the buffet, appetizers are preset at your table, and then entrées are ordered and served by the wait staff. It means that your meal can be completed in about an hour, especially important when dining with kids. In addition to three meals daily, the kitchen also prepared an early riser breakfast of fresh pastries, afternoon snacks, and hors d’oeuvres before dinner. Drinks - including juice, soda, coffee, hot chocolate, and tea - are complimentary throughout the cruise, as is the Chilean wine and beer with dinner. Other alcoholic beverages can be added to a running tab and paid for at the end of the cruise. As opposed to the bar, I frequented the free, on-demand latte machine in Panorama Lounge.
KidTripster Tip: No matter what your dietary restriction - gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian or vegan - the kitchen will accommodate you.
In the evening, one of our guides, Nigel, gave a presentation about the 2-1/2 years that he spent at a research base in Antarctica. Many of the guides on our cruise have an extensive history with Antarctica and have spent multiple seasons here. My only disappointment on this cruise was that we didn’t hear more from these experts. Typically, an overview presentation would have been given on the first night and then more sessions throughout the week. But several circumstances - our late arrival, a Humpback whale interruption, and the Christmas holiday - prevented this from happening. While I do understand the need to be flexible, I wish that we would have had this additional educational component.
Today, we had an early start in an attempt to pack in three landings rather than two. Off the ship by 7 a.m., we found ourselves at Whalers’ Bay on Deception Island to learn a bit about the human history in Antarctica. The buildings here included the remains of the Norwegian Aktiese lskabet Hektor whaling station and a British Antarctic survey base which was evacuated during a volcanic eruption in 1967. Our guide Nigel - who’s a walking Wikipedia when it comes to Antarctica - showed us around the area. I found the whaling history particularly interesting. Before Norwegian whalers developed a way to process whales aboard ships, they brought them to this beach where the blubber was removed and cooked down in giant boilers to extract the oil used to power the street lamps of Europe’s major cities.
Back on board, my son and I had breakfast with Nigel and two special guests. Dr. Andrew Lowther and his partner work for the Norwegian Polar Institute and had been living in a tent along the shore of Whalers’ Bay since November. They’re studying nearby Chinstrap penguins and their eating habits to advise the Norwegian government on setting regulations for krill fishing in Antarctica. The government wants to make sure that the penguins have enough to eat while still supporting the lucrative fishing industry. To accomplish this, the scientists are mounting small cameras and GPS devices on the backs of penguins to track their movements. Andrew shared his penguin cam video with us. Take a look here. The researchers will be here another two months, surviving on dehydrated meals. Nigel was kind enough to offer them hot breakfasts and hot showers.
Our next stop was the researchers’ office - the Chinstrap penguin colony at Baily Head. We were extremely fortunate to land here; because of the surf conditions, a landing is often not possible. This colony visit was the highlight of the entire voyage. It’s difficult for me to describe just how extraordinary this place was. It’s home to the largest Chinstrap colony in Antarctica - 106,000 penguins! As you step onto the black sand beach, you find yourself at the end of a major penguin highway with hundreds of penguins in front of you, waddling to the sea and then diving in to embark on their search for food. As you venture farther up the beach, you find more penguins who are generally unfazed by your presence. Then you round a bend and are stopped dead in your tracks. You’re at the bottom of a valley with a steep cliff on one side and mountains on the other. Every rocky mound as far as your eyes can see is covered in cackling penguins! It’s impossible for a single photo to capture the spectacle. It’s honestly one of the most amazing sights that I have ever seen… and smelled! Chicks had just hatched 10 days earlier. They still were huddled in their nests close to their parents who were feeding them beak to beak. As incredible as the number of penguins was, our guide Falk would tell us later that the population is actually down by 50%, according to some accounts. Regardless, the trip to Antarctica was worth just this single moment.
Still in awe of Mother Nature, we listened as our guide Wendy gave an onboard presentation after lunch. She reviewed all the wildlife that we’d seen on the cruise thus far. It was only then that I realized that the staff had been keeping a running list in the ship’s lobby of all our wildlife sightings. According to the count, we’d seen 15 species of birds, four species of seals, and two species of whales.
Finally, we made our third and final landing at Fort Point. Here we were lucky to see four penguin species on one island: lots of Chinstraps and Gentoos, plus a single Adele who was swimming away and a single Macaroni. Macaroni penguins are very distinct with yellow feathers on their heads. Of the hundreds of photos that I took on this cruise, the picture of this one, lonely Macaroni penguin sitting in a sea of Chinstraps is my favorite.
That night, we celebrated our Antartica adventure with a farewell dinner: a mushroom soufflé for the appetizer, rack of lamb for the entrée, and Baked Alaska for dessert.
KidTripster Tip: Having a birthday or anniversary while at sea? The wait staff will celebrate with an enthusiastic song, cake, and gift just for you!
And just like that, we returned to Frei Station where our adventure had begun. We had about an hour to explore the Russian side of the base before boarding our plane. There’s a Russian orthodox church perched on a hill that was built in Siberia, disassembled, and then reassembled in Antarctica. Inside, it’s quite ornate. There’s also a gift shop on the base, where the Russian clerk is very eager to sell you souvenirs. We stopped here to adorn our passports with unofficial Antarctica stamps. In the words of our expedition leader Cheli, it’s “highly illegal but strongly encouraged."
As we waited to make our way to the airstrip, Antarctica 21’s next group of passengers marched by us - two Chinese tour groups and only five non-Chinese passengers. The Chinese children in our group greeted them by enthusiastically chatting “welcome to Antarctica” in Mandarin.
KidTripster Tip: The makeup of the passenger list will impact your experience on the ship. For example, if the Chinese passengers described above didn’t speak English and the other passengers didn’t speak Mandarin, it’s likely that those five passengers would get to know each other really well. If you’re looking to have a more diverse experience, ask whether any tour groups are booked on the particular sailing that you’re considering. As mentioned earlier, you’ll find the most diverse passenger list on the holiday sailings, which also are the most expensive.
Finally, a word about the crew and staff on board the Ocean Nova: they are exceptional and incredibly hardworking. Consider that most of them work two months straight, get five days off, and then work two more months. It’s remarkable that they can muster the necessary enthusiasm and energy cruise after cruise, but they do.
KidTripster Tip: As with other cruises, it’s customary to leave a tip for the staff. On Antarctica 21, the tip is split equally among all the crew members. While the amount is completely up to you, the average is around $15 per passenger per day.
As we say goodbye to Antarctica, we feel like we’ve been experiencing another planet - a remote, stunning, life-giving planet. We recognize that Antarctica is undergoing change. And as it changes, so too will the rest of the world. The earth’s future is very must tied to the continent’s ability to maintain what amounts to 90% of the ice on the planet. I encourage you to experience this incredibly unique destination for yourself.
This trip to Antarctica marked a milestone for editor Shellie Bailey-Shah and her son: their seventh continent! Read more about how to make this dream a reality for your family - including information on the costs involved - here.
This writer received a discounted cruise for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.